I've been invited to join a group of international journalists on the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive--a five-day horseback adventure driving 500 head of cattle across the South Australian Outback. I've been on exactly one horse in my life: at the town fair when I was 10. (And it was a pony. And walked in a circle.) I am no cowboy.
I am, however, a sucker for free designer pajamas, which I am offered as I board Qantas's brand-new double-decker A380, which feels more like a luxury ocean liner than an airplane. Perhaps it's the spiral staircase or the onboard lounge or the multitude of (well-stocked) self-serve bars or the flat-bed business class seats or...did I mention the self-serve bars? An otherwise daunting 15-hour journey from Los Angeles to Melbourne turns out to be a vacation unto itself.
The luxury ends upon landing. The Outback comprises most of Australia and is roughly two thirds the size of the continental United States. It doesn't take long to feel very, very far from home. My forehead is pressed against the window of a tiny prop plane as it descends upon a fiery land of absolute nothingness, 1,200 miles northwest of Melbourne. We've arrived at our base camp, William Creek (population: six), which sits on the edge of Anna Creek cattle station. At 6 million acres (nearly the size of Israel), Anna Creek Station is considered the largest cattle station in the world.
We meet our boss drover, Randall Crozier, and his team of strapping Aussie cowboys, who are frighteningly proficient with a bullwhip. While this is not a gay-themed vacation, it is certainly gay-friendly--or just plain friendly. Dolphins at Sea World could learn a thing or two about charm from Australian drovers. A fleet of horses stands at attention behind Randall. "Kindly remove your watches," he says with a smile. "You're on bush time now. When the sun comes up, we work. When the sun goes down, we play. Tomorrow, when you get on that horse and look out at that sunrise, you'll reckon this is the edge of creation. Here you can do things you never thought you could do."
We're each paired with a horse to match our size and riding ability. I grow anxious as my name is the last to be called--surely the remaining horses are huddled like the cool kids on a playground. "I'm not taking the fat American. Neigh, neigh, neigh!" A hush falls over the paddock as the largest animal on the planet struts toward me like the evil, jet-black cousin of Falkor from The NeverEnding Story. "D'Artagnan will take good care of you," Randall says. "We use him for the nut rush." My eyebrows raise. "Really?" I say, acting as if I know what a nut rush is.
The accommodations at camp are first-class. The toilets flush, the showers are hot, and the Coopers Pale Ale is ice-cold. I dip toasted polenta into a vat of local bush tomato salsa while watching from a patio dining area as the drovers engage in a friendly rodeo competition. Dinner is a far cry from beans in a can, featuring a pear and rocket salad, saltbush lamb with silver beet and feta relish, Barossa free-range chicken breast with crispy pancetta, and sticky date pudding with wattle-seed cream and caramel sauce.
I retire to my carpeted, spacious tent (larger than some Manhattan apartments) and climb into a twin-size bed, well made with crisp sheets and a flannel comforter. Moonlight bursts through the window flap, casting a shadow on the makeshift cowboy outfit I've laid out for the next day.
A bugle blast calls us to breakfast at 5:30 a.m. I compliment the chef on this morning's spread of bacon, sausage, poached eggs, spinach, porridge, freshly squeezed orange juice, and French-press coffee. "Enjoy, mate," says chef Steve Marcus, setting down his rusty bugle. But for D'Artagnan's sake, I settle on a bowl of fruit.
With our 500 head of Santa Gertrudis cattle surrounded, we ride off into the sunrise. D'Artagnan and I creep along the sepia-toned landscape at a lumbering, leisurely pace, which is just fine by me. The Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive celebrates the history of legendary Outback cattle drives, the aim of which was to take cattle from one point to another and have them arrive in better condition--or at least the same--compared to the beginning of the drive.
Toward the end of the day, D'Artagnan becomes slightly agitated as we come upon a small, tattered paddock. "That's where the cattle are branded and neutered," Randall says. He explains that it's D'Artagnan's job to drag the soon-to-be-castrated bulls up to the post. "Ah." I nod, "The nut rush." He smiles: "We call 'em 'bush oysters.' Taste like bacon."
Just then my red windbreaker snags on a gum tree and lands on D'Artagnan's left eye, causing the mighty beast to break into a panicked sprint. "Please stop?" I beg, to no avail. Instead the horse rears back and bucks me into the air. I meet the desert floor with an ugly thud.
I lie still for a few seconds as I timorously check my startled body for damage. I emerge unscathed and relatively intact. Two of the aboriginal drovers trace a circle on the ground, gather a handful of dirt, and offer it to me. "Bush law," Randall explains. "You own that land now."
I apologize to D'Artagnan for the fright, and he receives me once again upon his back. I'm grateful. After all, how many opportunities is one granted to literally get back on the horse? We lumber toward our next camp in silence, the crimson sun falling behind us.
That night, a campfire is constructed from remains of the nearby Ghan railroad track. Local musicians Rohan and Polly serenade us with traditional songs of the Outback as the night's sky explodes with Southern Hemispheric star patterns. If the objective of a good vacation is to wholly remove oneself from normalcy, I have already succeeded. One by one, each member of the driving team stops by and jokingly pats me on the back. "Hey, cowboy. Good on ya, mate. Terrific dismount." I'm honored to have earned their respect (granted, for falling off a horse rather than proficiently riding one--but I'll take it.) After all, I'm now a landowner in the Aussie Outback